Wrestling: Lota made large impact at East Bay
Tom Lota was a high school teacher and wrestling coach for all the right reasons, and in the hours after he died on Sunday, he was hailed as a local legend.
“He wanted to help prepare kids for the rest of their lives,” said Ryan Garis, who wrestled for Lota at East Bay High from 1996-99 and twice placed fourth in the state. “He was there to help you through those tough years of high school. He touched so many lives in a positive way it was incredible.
“He will be missed by many, many people.”
After more than two years of battling colon and liver cancer, Lota died Sunday morning with many family and friends nearby. He was 63.
“He left us much too early,” said Garis, who often visited Lota after he retired in 2000 and dropped in as late as last week when dozens of former students and wrestlers came to visit at a hospice center in Sun City Center. “His spirits were good right up until the end.”
One of Lota’s most memorable athletes was Wili Sargable, who under Lota’s guidance in 1989 became a state champion at 152 pounds, despite competing with an amputated leg.
“(Lota) welcomed me as he did every other student,” said Sargable, who is Riverview High’s wrestling coach. “He made me do everything that everybody else did.
“He changed my life. He made my life what is today. I owe so much to him. So much.”
In 24 years of coaching at East Bay, Lota compiled a 227-71-2 record and led the Indians to seven district titles, nine Western Conference National Division titles and one regional title. His program also notched seven top-10 state tourney finishes. In 2006, Lota was inducted into the USA Wrestling National Hall of Fame.
Lota, who began coaching at Jesuit in 1969, also came the closest of any Hillsborough County coach to snap Brandon’s dual-match winning streak, which spanned more than 34 years and 459 straight victories before ending in 2008. In the 1979-80 season, Lota and East Bay fell 28-27 to the Eagles.
“Tom Lota was a man to be respected,” Brandon wrestling coach Russ Cozart said. “He was there to help kids and make them better. He helped so many improve their lives.”
Details of Lota’s memorial service have not been finalized, but it’s likely a ceremony will be confirmed within the next two days to be held at the Tom Lota Gymnasium on the East Bay High campus.